Monday, December 9, 2013

Theater Review: Christmas on the Rocks -- TheaterWorks

Ronn Carroll and Harry Bouvy. Photo: Lanny Nagler
Christmas on the Rocks Serves Up Refreshing Mixed Drink of Nostalgia, Humor
By Lauren Yarger
The setting is a dead joint somewhere in the cosmos, but this Christmas Eve, Mac (Ronn Carroll) tends bar for some rather unusual customers in TheaterWorks’ world premiere of Christmas on the Rocks.

The customers are grown up versions of children from holiday classics. Bringing them together here is the brainchild of Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero, who expertly directs a three-actor team: Carroll as the bartender and Harry Bouvy and Christine Pedi, who bring to life male and female characters in shorts by seven different playwrights.

First up is All Grown Up by John Cariani (Almost Maine). Ralphie, from the movie “A Christmas Story” admires a leg lamp that Mac has on the bar. It reminds him of a Christmas long ago when he wanted a BB gun. Having to wear his aunt’s gift of a pink bunny suit that year might have caused the boy some long-term issues we weren’t aware of while watching the classic Jean Shepherd story….. You get the idea.

Next up is Susan Walker, from “Miracle on 34th Street, now a divorced realtor in The Cane in the Corner by Jonathan Tolins (Buyer and Cellar). Susan’s belief in Christmas and happy endings has waned since Kris Kringle made her and her mother believe in Santa all those years ago. Can he and a house that’s for sale bring another much-needed miracle for Susan?

In Say It Glows by Jeffrey Hatcher (Tuesdays with Morrie), Hermey, the elf who wanted to be a dentist in the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” cartoon, is rather gay, and very miffed about having to attend an annual tribute dinner for Rudolph. It seems the reindeer became a little hard to deal with after he guided Santa’s sleigh through the storm that Christmas and fame has caused his head to be bigger than his glowing red nose.

The bartender makes an exit and Pedi gets some solo time in the spotlight as a Seussical-rhyming Cindy Lou Who, who’s no longer 2 in a clever Going Green by Matthew Lombardo (High, Looped). Life hasn’t been anything to sing “fahoo foray” about. Cindy Lou hits the booze pretty hard and recounts her troubled marriage to the Grinch. The details, shall we say, are less kid-friendly than the cartoon.

Theresa Rebeck (Bad Dates, TV’s “Smash”) tackles the dickens out of “A Christmas Carol” with God Bless Us Everyone. Enter a cynical, still tattered looking, Tim Cratchit: “God bless us, everyone! I’ll have a pint,” he says. You can’t help but laugh, but in one of the more serious-toned vignettes of the evening, Tim reflects on the cost of health care, how not “everyone” is blessed with it and how money doesn’t buy happiness. He frustrates Mac with his negative attitude….

Pedi returns in Still Nuts About Him by Edwin Sanchez (La Bella Familia) as a grown up Clara, still clad in her nightgown and ribbons, who is trying to come to grips with her cheating husband and the fact that she’s growing old. What she does with a nutcracker is pretty hilarious.

The collection of stories concludes with Merry Christmas, Blockhead by Jacques Lamarre (I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti). A depressed Charlie Brown stops in to take a break from disappointing developments in his life concerning his dog and his psychiatrist wife and meets a red-haired woman…

Overall, the concept is brilliant (kudos to Ruggiero). It’s funny and a different kind of show to break up the same-old, same-old presented at the holidays. Pedi and Bouvy are terrific (especially with just two weeks of rehearsal), making complete transitions between characters and taking them far enough, but not too far, to skillfully make them funny and likable. Transitions are aided by costumes and wigs from designers Alejo Vietti and Brittany Harman. Carrol, however, shines as the brightest star in this Christmas tree, playing the perfect straight man to all the other zany characters.

While the show is entertaining, the stories aren’t linked by any garland that tells us why or how these characters happen to come to the bar, or why Mac doesn’t seem to be putting together who they are, however. They just blow into the bar with sound effect by Designer Michael Miceli.

And did they all have to have such tragic transitions into adulthood? Call me a holiday optimist, but as one who still tears up when the Whos gather to sing around that present-less tree, or when Susan realizes that Santa is real, or when Linus reads the Christmas story, I truly would enjoy some tales of kids who were actually happy after the story ended!

This show probably will see an afterlife of its own, through additional versions using more playwrights at TheaterWorks (let’s see some more female playwrights included!) and as this version is presented at regional theaters around the country. It deserves success. Raise your glass to a new holiday tradition.

Christmas on the Rocks plays through Dec. 22 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 6:30 pm; Sunday at 4 and 8 pm. Tickets are $35-$55:; 860-527-7838. 

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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